MOVIE REVIEW: The Great Gatsby



Since this would-be Christmas-moved-to-summer blockbuster film is based on one of the most highly revered novels in the history of American literature, let's get the inflammatory and prerequisite "book is better than the movie" rant and debate over with, right off the bat, on this 2013 take of The Great Gatsby.  Directed by Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, known for his opulent and sometimes maddening resume of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Australia, the film will be endlessly scrutinized by many eyes.  As usual (and frequently repeated on this website), the book will always be better than the movie.  There is very little debate (However, for a fun "I prefer the movie to the book" story, check out Nina Metz's piece from the May 9th edition of the Chicago Tribune).  They are entirely different mediums.  Take them as separate entities and judge them as different art forms.  No matter the movie, you should prepare before you even take the first bite of popcorn for the inevitable disappointment.

A book or novel has nearly unlimited time, depth, and space to add endless details, meanderings, nuances, and themes whether your story is an allegory about the decline of 1920's American decadence, wizards in magical England, or wussy vampires that sparkle.  Movies, because of their running time limits (even those that pull off trilogies like Peter Jackson's takes on J.R.R. Tolkien's works), will always have to condense, refine, and whittle down what works and doesn't work from a cinematic standpoint.  All you can hope for from the movie adaptation is two things: entertainment and spirit.

First, if a movie adaptation is entertaining, much can be forgiven and glossed over.  Secondly, and more importantly, if the movie adaptation can, despite all of its flaws and revisions, capture the spirit and essence of the original work, it will win accord and success from even some of the most dedicated purists.  Having both of those qualities still won't stop thousands of English majors, book aficionados, school teachers, and college professors from possibly pulling their hair out watching this version of The Great Gatsby.  Once again, it is inevitable.  Let's begin to sort the slippery slope.

Either through actually reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel in school or cheating through CliffNotes or SparkNotes, you know this classic plot.  Aspiring and wide-eyed bonds salesman, failed writer, Yale graduate, and World War I veteran Nick Carraway (played by the somehow never-aging 37-year-old Tobey Maguire) has left the Midwest to come to the Big Apple.  He rents a small house in the fictional Long Island village of West Egg.  His second cousin Daisy (the whimsical Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan) lives across the bay in East Egg, trapped in a loveless marriage to her "old money" broad-shouldered brutish husband Tom Buchanan (Zero Dark Thirty and Warrior star Joel Edgerton), a Yale classmate of Nick.  They soon introduce Carraway to Jordan Baker (Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki), a gossiping high society golf pro, who finds his non-money charm fetching.  Around the same time, Nick understands Daisy's loveless sentiment when he learns Tom is seeing another woman on the side, the desperate Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher of Wedding Crashers), wife of a simple-minded mechanic George Wilson (Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke) who together reside in the raw industrial wasteland known as the "Valley of Ashes" halfway on the road between the city and Long Island.

Nick, in his little bungalow, just happens to live next to the grand mansion estate of a mysterious millionaire by the name of Jay Gatsby (Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio).  He's the elusive host of the most extravagant and decadent parties of New York's richest and highest society.  While few people see him and even fewer know how he amassed his fortune, possibly through shady dealings with a notorious Jewish gangster by the name of Meyer Wolfsheim (Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan), Gatsby's name is whispered in all levels of good and bad popularity and gossip.  When the millionaire himself meets his new neighbor Nick, Jay takes the "old sport" under his wing of friendship and trust.  Gatsby confides his true personality, his back story, and the reason for his wealth to Nick, one that involves a deep longing for Daisy Buchanan, his the "one-that-got-away" from five years ago between the war and now.  The ensuing and volatile love triangle and chess match of pining, passion, lavish wealth, jealousy, greed, and revenge spin Fitzgerald's classic story to many twists and turns before the story is complete.

From a performance standpoint, Luhrmann could not have found a more talented young cast to embody these classic roles.  Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the dashing Jay Gatsby.  This is the first time in a long time (likely since the first half of The Aviator) that DiCaprio has embraced his full "movie star" potential in glamorous role he truly suited for.  Normally, he is hiding in flawed and introverted characters, even in blockbusters.  This is the fully blossomed dreamboat that folks have been waiting for since Titanic and he makes it look effortless.  For those movie viewers who are used to the 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford (it's on Netflix Streaming if you want some pre-game homework), DiCaprio instills a personality and passion that puts Redford's one-move arsenal of just his smile to shame.  In the words of Saturday Night Live's fake Nicolas Cage (Andy Samberg), "that's high praise" and not an easy victory to claim over a heartthrob legend like Redford.  This performance won't win him his overdue Oscar, but it might be a nice companion piece on his resume to go with his starring role in Martin Scorsese's latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, coming later in the year.  While Tobey Maguire is ever-present as the eager narrator (although trapped in a terrible framing device of Nick recounting the sordid affair in therapy years later), this is Leo's show and he doesn't disappoint.

Carey Mulligan is bewitchingly luminous as the object of his affection and is far more convincing than anything single second of Mia Farrow's screen time from 1974.  Her and DiCaprio's chemistry together is extremely palpable.  Time seems to stand still when they are together and the cues of the signature Lana Del Rey ballad "Young and Beautiful" sneak into Craig Armstrong's underlying instrumental score.  To slow down the pace is a hard feat to pull off in a Baz Luhrmann movie where the average shot length is, by my informal estimation, about four seconds.  Joel Edgerton equally asserts himself as an upgrade to any prior interpretation of Tom Buchanan.  His coiled intensity shines through in every focused scowl, cigar puff, and raised eyebrow.  He goes beyond the unfair Snidely Whiplash characterizations that others bestow on this "bad guy" role.  While many other names are around (Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, etc.), the strength of this film's performances come from our competitive love triangle of DiCaprio, Mulligan, and Edgerton.

Stepping back into looking at the challenge to bringing The Great Gatsby to the silver screen, the main ingredient that still fuels this senseless "book is better than the movie" debate is differing artistic representations mixed with different mediums.  The movie director and screenwriter bring a different lens to their creative process than a book author.  Directors think in camera angles and pacing, not chapters and prose.  The interpretations are always going to be undoubtedly different, just by definition of the different mediums of film and novel.  Baz Luhrmann is not F. Scott Fitzgerald, period.  He couldn't consult the author who's been dead for almost 73 years.  That's like trying to hire Jesus to be a technical adviser on the History Channel's The Bible.  Good luck with that.  Nevertheless, every reader of the novel is going to have a different impression of this film adaptation from Luhrmann.

Some faithful readers will enjoy the kinetic injection of razzle-dazzle employed by Luhrmann and deem it as putting the roar in the "Roaring 20's."  Others who are not fooled by the gloss are going to feel that Fitzgerald's central theme about the downfall of decadence, not the celebration of it, is weakened to some extent.  The movies's spirit then becomes more questioned than its merit.  Some will highly enjoy the glamorous favoritism towards the Gatsby character that Luhrmann leans to with his stellar DiCaprio muse.  Others will miss the enigmatic mystery the character possessed all the way until his final moments on the page and his resonance afterwards.  For a story as well-read and celebrated as The Great Gatsby, where you, the audience, side on these teetering scales and the many other creative differences from the novel will very likely shape your like or dislike of the movie.

All of that debate is judging it as a book adaptation.  When you step back and judge it as a movie, more balancing acts of love and hate come to the forefront.  While the period detail is nothing short of marvelous in every conceivable way, there are people who will call out the CGI puppeteer strings that made much of it implausibly possible.  Luhrmann's signature darting-and-dancing camera style and hyper-editing has always generated a love-and-hate reaction dating back to his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge successes.  It's either the coolest and most creative thing in the world or the most scatterbrained nonsense this side of Michael Bay.  The same can be echoed for the use of 3D to put all of that on the screen for an extra surcharge.  Finally, folks that are fond of the stellar music of the actual 1920's (think Midnight in Paris  with triple the possibilities) will long for a genuine taste of that era and hate this movie's bold modern mixes.  Others will call this inventive hip-hop/rap-flavored version of the Jazz Age, courtesy of music producer Jay-Z, incredibly creative and make this soundtrack the "must-have" album of the summer.  Still again, the direction you lean on these cinematic balancing acts will shape your like or dislike for the film.

What are this writer's final answers to all of those balancing acts?  Well, as an adaptation of the book, The Great Gatsby has some clear flaws in this translation.  As always, the book is better than the movie.  That aforementioned framing device for Nick is awful and the necessary Jordan, Myrtle, and George characters are reduced to sideline performers.  That said, I believe the spirit of the novel's theme is still there.  While the celebration of the flashy spectacle is still the overwhelming center stage of Luhrmann's production, enough loss, longing, love, and defeat makes it into the final piece to Fitzgerald's themes.

As a movie, I don't think another director working in Hollywood could have provided the sheer volume of vibrant beauty and pristine detail that Baz Luhrmann has here.  Baz's own wife, two-time Academy Award winning costume designer and production designer Catherine Martin, created the "look" of the film that is utterly spectacular on all levels.  Her set design and costumes, highlighted by the excellent cinematography and visual effects, are jaw-droppingly flawless.  Despite my fears of a Moulin Rouge repeat of head-spinning camera work and a nails-on-the-chalkboard white noise mix of incoherent sound and music, I felt that Luhrmann actually restrained himself in some places from his usual temptation to crank the dial to 11.  While still way over-cut and over-edited, his introverted scenes match the impact of his extroverted ones.  Not all of the hip-hop infusion works.  Some of it is really out of place and distracting, but that energy doesn't derail the movie's tone.  I found the use of 3D not obtrusive at all and fitting to some of Luhrmann's huge visual high notes.

When all is examined together, The Great Gatsby is an unlikely triumph that I sure didn't see coming.  The awkward business decision to move the film from an Oscar-friendly Christmas 2012 release date to this 2013 summer release will be a bit of a box office challenge squeezed between Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness.  It likely sacrificed awards for dollars.  As it turns out, the trailers far oversell the noise level that actually occurs.  The film's cool and soothing central romance really won me over and I think it will win all of you over too.  My initial skepticism level was very high, and not all from the usual book-to-movie debate.  It's not often that a movie proves me wrong.  The Great Gatsby sure did.

LESSON #1:  THE AMERICAN DREAM OF THE 1920'S-- F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, written during the "Roaring 20's" in 1925, has remained a time capsule and microcosm example of the American Dream of that now-historical time period.  Before the stock market crash and the Great Depression, the American Dream was to be somebody and to attain wealth.  Symbols of status like automobiles and the latest fashion became the some of the goals as the balance of wealth was shifting from "old money" to first generation "new" fortunes and self-made men.  That path of the American Dream comes with consequences.  See Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: THE TRAPPINGS OF A WEALTHY LIFESTYLE-- On the surface, you would think wealthy people, living without limits when it comes to attaining anything they want, would have more freedom than any common man or woman next to them.  Think again.  There are trappings to a wealthy lifestyle from the 1920's that still match today's day and age.  The wealthy can't step backwards and simplify things once you reach a certain level of status.  "Old money" can't runaway to a little country getaway and a Rolls-Royce owner can't go back and buy a Hyundai.  The wealthy are also trapped by an ever-present watchful scrutiny and gossip that none of the rest of us have.  Today, they are endlessly pursued by paparazzi.  Because of their higher status, they are unjustly held to a higher moral standard as well.  That's where cheating, infidelity, and divorce muddy the waters more when they happen with the wealthy.

LESSON #3: THE SUCCESS OR FAILURE OF SELF-REINVENTION-- This lesson piggy-backs from Lessons #1 and #2.  In seeking the self-made man route of the American Dream during the 1920's and discovering the trappings of wealth, the success or failure of one's self-reinvention is at risk.  If the self-made man can maintain his success, no matter the shady legality of the methods taken to get there, then he has changed his stars forever.  If that man can't attain everything he wants or if his past sins or dealings can't be quelled, the self-reinvention will implode to the point where all that is remembered afterwards are the flaws and failures, not the successes.

LESSON #4: THE EXTENT ONE WILL GO FOR A LOST LOVE-- Speaking of reinvention, I'd say a penniless guy from the Dust Bowl who survives a war, falls for a girl, precedes to save every news clipping, letter and photo of her in scrapbooks during the five years necessary to amass a grand enough, and possibly illegally-attained, fortune to buy the mansion directly across the water from his long-lost love capable of facilitating hugely expensive parties with fireworks, booze, and music every weekend, just for the off chance "she" walks back into his life is quite an extent one man will go for a lost love.

LESSON #5: THE ABILITY OR INABILITY TO REPEAT THE PAST-- One of Fitzgerald and Gatsby's classic quotes of "why of course you can" when Nick tells him that he "can't repeat the past" is a perfect debate and lesson from both the book and the movie.  I would venture to guess that this is a 50/50 debate for society.  I predict that half of all people wholly believe in the various ideas relating to history repeating itself, the past coming back to haunt us, second chances, making amends, or even the notion of reincarnation.  The other half follow the mantras of what's done is done, time waits for no one, not turning back the hands of time, and how you can't put the toothpaste back into the tube.  Nick and Gatsby give us both sides of the debate.